Apostles Anglican Church
Wednesday, 18 Aug, Week of the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
(2 Samuel 6, Psalm 119:1-24, Philippians 1:1-11)
Keep your Church, O Lord, by your perpetual mercy; and because without you the frailty of our nature causes us to fall, keep us from all things hurtful, and lead us to all things profitable for our salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In 1962, President John Kennedy spoke at Rice University. He described his vision of America and the goals of his administration. It was a momentous speech, largely remembered for this excerpt:
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
Not because they are easy, but because they are hard, and because hard things organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. I thought of these words and this principle as I began to prepare for today’s homily. There is no saint appointed in the Anglican calendar for this day, but we are between two great saints this week: The Blessed Virgin Mary on Sunday last and Bernard of Clairvaux on Friday, two days hence. To reflect on either would be of great benefit, and, dare I say, comparatively easy. And then there is the Daily Office readings for this day, particularly the Old Testament lesson from Morning Prayer: 1 Samuel 6, the unsuccessful attempt to return the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem and the death of Uzzah.
I choose Uzzah. I choose Uzzah not because that text is easy, but because it is hard, because that text will serve to measure and challenge our best understandings of God, because to ignore such texts is to refuse an aspect of God’s self-revelation, a refusal which is the beginning of heresy and which ends in idolatry. So, I choose Uzzah.
It will do us no good to begin with Uzzah though; there are too many preliminary questions to be addressed. No, we have to begin in the beginning, in the Garden with our first parents.
Genesis 2:8–9 (ESV): 8 And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Genesis 2:15–17 (ESV): 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
We learn a bit more about this tree of the knowledge of good and evil when the serpent confronts Eve.
Genesis 3:1–3 (ESV): 3 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.
He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ”
Don’t touch and don’t eat, lest you die. Do these prohibitions raise questions in your minds? Why these restrictions? Why place such a dangerous and tempting tree in the Garden in the first place? Why not “human proof” the Garden as parents child-proof a house? Why the need for rules?
I don’t know: not really, not with certainty. I told you this was hard. But I do have some ideas about how rules — including those established by God — function.
First, rules define the limits of human flourishing and make human flourishing possible. God filled the Garden with everything Adam and Eve needed to flourish: companionship, good and fulfilling work to do, a congenial environment, abundant food. You may eat of all the trees in the garden…except this one. Within this boundary you will flourish; beyond it you will die. This is less a restriction than an assurance of safety. Here you will flourish; here you are safe. But not there; don’t go there. We are free — and feel free — to roam and explore and experiment and risk only in a context of safety. And for that, we need to know where the boundaries are. Rules define the limits of human flourishing and make human flourishing possible.
Second, rules reinforce the distinction between Creator and creature. If you want to see a dysfunctional home, look for one in which the children are treated as equals by their parents, where the children are given as much autonomy as the adults, where the tables are turned and the children — for all intents and purposes — make the rules. I encountered that again and again when teaching, and it was always disastrous. Children are not adults. And creatures are not the Creator. It is necessary to be reminded of that, to humble ourselves before our Creator, to acquiesce to his wisdom. Rules remind us of that. Rules reinforce the distinction between Creator and creature.
Third, rules give us a way to demonstrate to God our love and faithfulness. Unlike the pagan gods and idols, our God needs nothing from us. And, since he created all things, we have nothing of our own to offer him anyway, except for our love and faithfulness which we show, in part, through our willing obedience. How could Adam and Eve demonstrate their love for God, their faithfulness to him? By tending the Garden. By having children who would fill the earth and extend the garden. By enjoying the abundance God had provided, and by staying away from that one tree in the midst of the Garden. In short, Adam and Eve could demonstrate their love for God, their faithfulness to him, by their willing obedience to their vocation and to the limit God had placed on them. Rules give us a way to demonstrate to God our love and faithfulness.
Fourth, rules keep us from presuming upon a relationship with God; they keep us from transgressing the holy. Here’s an idea: just try to walk up and fist bump the President of the United States; he is, after all, your elected representative. I’ve been close to a president. I’ve looked into the eyes — or the sunglasses — of Secret Service agents and I’ve felt the cold chill emanating from them. And I had no doubt that had I taken one step too near the President, I would have found myself handcuffed and on the ground — once I had regained consciousness. I knew better than to presume upon that electoral relationship. How much more with God who is the Holy One, the one before whom angels veil their eyes, the one in whose presence the seraphim — the burning ones — burst into flame. Yes, God loves us. Yes, God welcomes us into his presence. But we do not presume to come trusting in our own righteousness; we do not come presumptuously. We come into the presence of the Holy One with holy humility. Rules keep us from presuming upon a relationship with God; they keep us from transgressing the holy.
So, we have to dispense with any idea that rules are somehow arbitrary restrictions meant somehow to diminish us. No: rules are intended to promote our flourishing, to remind us of our nature as creatures who are dependent upon our Creator, to give us a way to show our love and faithfulness to God, and to keep us from transgressing the holiness of God. Of course, these reasons aren’t exhaustive, but they will do for our purposes today.
Still, we are not quite ready for Uzzah. We must first speak of the ark of the covenant.
Details for the construction and transportation of the ark are given in Exodus 25:
Exodus 25:10–15 (ESV): 10 “They shall make an ark of acacia wood. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, a cubit and a half its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height. 11 You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside shall you overlay it, and you shall make on it a molding of gold around it. 12 You shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on the one side of it, and two rings on the other side of it. 13 You shall make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. 14 And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry the ark by them. 15 The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it.
Notice how the ark is to be carried: on poles, lest anyone touch it. We get more detail in Numbers 4:
Numbers 4:1–6 (ESV): 4 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 2 “Take a census of the sons of Kohath from among the sons of Levi, by their clans and their fathers’ houses, 3 from thirty years old up to fifty years old, all who can come on duty, to do the work in the tent of meeting. 4 This is the service of the sons of Kohath in the tent of meeting: the most holy things. 5 When the camp is to set out, Aaron and his sons shall go in and take down the veil of the screen and cover the ark of the testimony with it. 6 Then they shall put on it a covering of goatskin and spread on top of that a cloth all of blue, and shall put in its poles.
This passage goes on to describe the covering of all the holy place furnishing in preparation for transport. Then we read:
Numbers 4:15 (ESV): 15 And when Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, as the camp sets out, after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry these, but they must not touch the holy things, lest they die. These are the things of the tent of meeting that the sons of Kohath are to carry.
Numbers 4:17–20 (ESV): 17 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 18 “Let not the tribe of the clans of the Kohathites be destroyed from among the Levites, 19 but deal thus with them, that they may live and not die when they come near to the most holy things: Aaron and his sons shall go in and appoint them each to his task and to his burden, 20 but they shall not go in to look on the holy things even for a moment, lest they die.”
Think of these Kohathite Levites not as sacrificing priests of the altar — they did not descend from Aaron — but rather as Israel’s altar guild, the only ones appointed to attend to the holy things of the sanctuary. Particularly, they were the only ones allowed to carry the ark — carry, but not touch. Kohathites assigned by the high priest were to carry the ark covered, on poles resting on their shoulders. Again, the rules for this were not arbitrary. They were intended to promote Israel’s flourishing, to remind Israel of their election by God and of the dependence upon him, to give Israel a way to show their love and faithfulness to God, and to keep Israel from transgressing the holiness of God.
Now, we are ready to speak of Uzzah. Some twenty years before the events of 2 Samuel 6, the ark had been captured by the Philistines. You can read the story in 1 Samuel 4 – 6. When the ark was returned to Israel, it was not taken to the tabernacle at Shiloh, but was housed with Abinadab in the region of Kiriath-Jearim. There it remained for some twenty years. During that time, David became king of all Israel and captured Jerusalem as his capital city. It is natural that he would want to consolidate both political power and ritual worship in the capital, and the latter required bringing the ark to rest in Jerusalem. That is the context for 2 Samuel 6.
2 Samuel 6:1–7 (ESV): David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 2 And David arose and went with all the people who were with him from Baale-judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who sits enthroned on the cherubim. 3 And they carried the ark of God on a new cart and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. And Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart, 4 with the ark of God, and Ahio went before the ark.
5 And David and all the house of Israel were celebrating before the Lord, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. 6 And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. 7 And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God.
So, what is wrong with this picture? Well, let’s ask some questions.
1. Had God commanded that the ark be moved to Jerusalem? Or was that at David’s instigation?
2. Where was the high priest to cover the ark, prepare it for transport, and select those who would carry it?
3. Where were the Kohathites whose responsibility it was to transport the ark?
4. Why was the ark on a cart instead of being carried on poles as God had commanded?
Let’s get this straight. Uzzah was no innocent victim. He was complicit in disobeying God’s explicit rules on when, by whom, and how the ark was to be transported. As was David. As were all the cohort who participated in this fiasco. Whether this was all through ignorance or knowing disregard is impossible to say; but it resulted in Uzzah’s death. And, through Uzzah’s death, God said this, at least:
This is not the way for Israel to flourish.
This is not the way for creatures to acknowledge their Creator.
This is not the way to demonstrate love and faithfulness to God.
This is not the way to deal with holy things and with the Holy One of Israel.
Was this a costly lesson? Yes. But was it a necessary lesson if Israel were to flourish in covenant with the Holy God? Yes.
I wanted to talk about Uzzah today, in part, because our culture looks increasingly like this fiasco in 2 Samuel 6. We do not like God’s rules, so we are writing our own: on gender; marriage; sanctity of life; treatment of the least and most vulnerable among us; exploitation — sexualization and commercialization — of children; worship; and the like. We treat God’s rules as arbitrary, unduly restrictive. And yet, those very rules are there for our flourishing, for allowing us to relate as creatures to our Creator, for demonstrating love and faithfulness to our God, for approaching holy things and the Holy One with humility. To obey these rules is to prosper. To disregard them is to court disaster.
The first stanza of the psalm appointed for today, Psalm 119:1-8, is a nearly perfect summary of all this, and I close with it:
1 Blessed are those who are undefiled in their ways,*
and walk in the law of the Lord.
2 Blessed are those who keep his testimonies*
and seek him with their whole heart,
3 Even those who do no wickedness*
and perfectly walk in his ways.
4 You have ordered your precepts*
that we should diligently keep them.
5 O that my ways were made so direct*
that I might keep your statutes!
6 Then would I not be put to shame*
while I give heed unto all your commandments.
7 I will thank you with an upright heart,*
when I have learned your righteous judgments.
8 I will keep your statutes;*
O do not forsake me utterly.